Sri Lankan PM warns against return to divisive politics
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe urged Sri Lanka’s parties Wednesday to work together as he began forming a new government backed by minority Tamils after a surge in support for his reform-driven agenda in parliamentary elections.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) more than doubled its seats in parliament in Monday’s polls, easily beating the party of Mahinda Rajapakse and dashing the former president’s hopes of returning to power.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, he called for unity in a country still riven by the scars of a decades-long civil war that pitted Tamil separatists against the army.
“I want everyone to come together now, think of the country, think of the people,” said Wickremesinghe on the lawns of his official residence in Colombo.
“We can achieve unity in this country… I don’t think anyone can opt out. No one can go back to divisive politics. We will not allow that.”
He will be sworn in as prime minister this week after his UNP won 106 seats in the 225-member house, up from 40 in the previous election.
That is short of a majority, but a pledge of “issue-based” support from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which holds the balance of power with 16 seats, will allow the party to carry out promised political and economic reforms.
“We will sit in the opposition but extend support to the government,” TNA lawmaker Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP Wednesday.
“It will be issue-based support, but we think we can work with the prime minister.”
– Fractured opposition –
President Maithripala Sirisena, who won a surprise victory over Rajapakse in a January 8 presidential election, had appointed Wickremesinghe as the head of a minority government after that poll.
Rajapakse, whose United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came second in Monday’s poll with 95 seats, will sit on the opposition benches after conceding Tuesday that his “dream of becoming prime minister has faded away”.
But the UPFA is divided between those loyal to the former leader and supporters of Sirisena, the nominal head of the party. Sources said Wickremesinghe would likely engineer defections from the fractured opposition.
He also has the backing of one more MP from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party.
Wickremesinghe’s UNP has said it will investigate allegations that up to 40,000 Tamils were killed by government forces under Rajapakse’s command in 2009 during the final stages of the war against Tamil separatist rebels.
Rajapakse has long insisted that not a single civilian was killed by security forces and resisted international calls for an independent investigation.
The 69-year-old remains hugely popular among large sections of the majority Sinhalese community for presiding over the crushing defeat of Tamil guerrillas after their 37-year war for a separate homeland.
But he is a polarising figure on an island still struggling to come to terms with the past.
He was shunned by Western governments over the brutal end to the island’s ethnic conflict, and remains deeply unpopular among its Tamil and Muslim minorities.
Rajapakse secured a seat in parliament by standing for the north-western district of Kurunegala after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota.
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